This could be the year Tom Brady accomplishes something truly impressive.
Sure, he has three Lombardi Trophies, two Super Bowl MVPs and two league MVPs, has been selected for eight Pro Bowls, lives with his supermodel wife on an estate surrounded by a moat and will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But this will be the season the New England Patriots rely on their dashing prince of a quarterback more than they ever have. Brady’s biggest challenge lies ahead, starting with Sunday’s season opener against the Buffalo Bills in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
If the Patriots are to maintain their AFC East superiority and fulfill expectations as a Super Bowl contender, then Brady almost certainly will have carried them despite an offensive lineup that looks nothing like past years.
“A lot of people are saying he don’t have all the weapons he had last year,” Bills linebacker Nigel Bradham said.
“But that’s Tom Brady. He can make somebody out of anybody.”
New England will need him to do exactly that in 2013.
Brady turned 36 last month and is entering his 14th season. He’ll need to put forth some of his best work to get his team back to the Super Bowl.
“There is always an onus on the quarterback,” Brady said on a conference call with Bills reporters this week. “The pressure of professional football and the pressure to do things right, I’m sure that’s in every job. Certainly in football, a lot of times it does fall on the quarterback.
“From my standpoint, that’s kind of where I want it. I want guys to look to me for communication, to do the right thing and to hold me accountable, and I expect the same things of them.”
New England last year led the NFL in total offense and was fourth in passing offense. But 88 percent of its catches, 87 percent of its receiving yards and 88 percent of its receiving touchdowns have been deleted from the roster or are hurt.
Brady’s binky, Wes Welker, dazzled a new fan base Thursday night with the Denver Broncos. Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead also are gone. Aaron Hernandez is facing murder charges. Rob Gronkowski is doubtful for Sunday.
“Players come and go,” Brady said. “Coaches come and go, and to be able to adjust and adapt is a big part of the NFL. It’s a big part of the success of franchises and organizations.”
Of the nine receivers and tight ends on New England’s roster, four are rookies: receivers Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins and tight end Zach Sudfeld. Thompkins and Sudfeld weren’t drafted.
The veterans are receivers Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater (one reception in 75 career games) and tight ends Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui (five catches in 14 games last year).
Edelman is Brady’s top returning wide receiver. Edelman caught 21 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns in nine games.
“You have to be able to adapt within a game scenario,” Brady said of the Patriots’ burgeoning offensive chemistry. “Things rarely go as you anticipate them, and we have to be prepared to make adjustments this weekend. We have to be prepared to make adjustments on the opening series.
“That’s a big step in our growth as a team, to be able to put forth a game plan and then implement the game plan, and if it doesn’t work, be able to adjust.”
Brady is the most successful regular-season quarterback of the Super Bowl era with at least 100 starts. He has won 77.8 percent of his games. He’s 10-1 on opening day.
Bills linebacker Manny Lawson has faced Brady a handful of times with the Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers. He explained Brady’s brilliance is recognizing a defense, calling a play right at the line and uncannily identifying the proper option right on the spot.
“I can’t say I’ve ever thought, ‘I’ve got this guy fooled,’ ” Lawson said. “I’m not saying it can’t happen, but it is rare.
“I’ve never been so confident to think, ‘I’m showing blitz, but I’m really dropping and I know he thinks I’m blitzing.’ ”
Most legendary quarterbacks spend their careers next to future Hall of Famers.
Joe Montana threw to Jerry Rice. Terry Bradshaw had four other Hall of Famers in his huddle and a few more on the Steel Curtain defense. Troy Aikman had Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith.
How many offensive teammates from Brady’s three championship seasons will join him in Canton someday?
That’s amazing because, despite not winning a Super Bowl, the 1990s Bills already have sent Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, James Lofton and Bruce Smith. Andre Reed should get in eventually.
The average fan, meanwhile, would stammer to name two or three of Brady’s running backs, receivers or tight ends from their 2001, 2003 and 2004 championship seasons.
Deion Branch was a Super Bowl MVP, but never went to a Pro Bowl. David Givens was their top receiver one of those years. Troy Brown went to one Pro Bowl. Corey Dillon, a formidable runner, played for only one of those Super Bowl teams. Antowain Smith was good, not great.
As much as Brady was the face of those teams, he never has been more obligated to carry a team as he will be this year.
“If I had a Hall of Fame quarterback, I’d rely on him, too,” Bradham said. “He’s a competitor. He’ll make sure they’re at their best Sunday.”